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February 2, 2012

A Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Soul

Meh.  Needs more swords.

Sometimes my brother makes bad decisions when it comes to buying games.  Very bad decisions -- like buying every new installment/spinoff of the Dynasty Warriors series in spite of the soft-ban I’ve placed.  Or maybe he’ll go out of his way to buy a fighting game -- one that he’s already traded in -- with the intent of having it replace his addiction hobby of Street Fighter 4 and Marvel vs. Capcom 3…only to play it about three times and let it decay within a CD case.

But there are times when he does well.  And buying Soulcalibur 5 is one of those times.

Transcending history and the world, a tale of souls and swords eternally retold…that’s the series’ famous tagline, so to speak.  The swords in question: Soul Edge, an evil life-consuming, shape-shifting blade, and Soul Calibur, a divine weapon and Edge’s counterpart.  The souls?  The (inexplicably attractive) people that gather together to try and collect them.  Fighting and fashion shows ensue.

What’s interesting about this fifth game is that it’s a reboot of sorts -- one that automatically earns bonuses for calling itself Soulcalibur 5 and not just Soulcalibur.  It’s bringing the franchise back after a several-year absence; in-universe, it’s skipping time ahead by 17 years.  It’s a chance to bring in some new faces, and get some fan approval by seeing how the mainstays fared as they aged.  It sounds like an awesome idea with lots of potential…and it would have worked perfectly if most of the new guys weren’t copies of old characters and more than three of the old guys actually aged.  There’s some hand-waving in that the non-agers have fragments of Soul Edge inside them, but come on.  Nearly two decades, and they can’t be arsed to even change their hairstyle?

Well, whatever.  More fan-joy to be had, that’s all.  And when you get down to it, most die-hard fans and fighting game enthusiasts consider the story as a mere diversion.   It’s all about that gameplay.  And what’s there is definitely good.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best at fighting games; I’m lucky to link my attacks in Street Fighter 4.  But with Soulcalibur 5, you’ve got basic attack strings you can dial in and fire off.  In layman’s terms: you don’t have to press buttons in as little a space as one sixtieth of a second.  A one-two tap is all you need to swing your sword twice.  That means that, instead of sweating over whether or not your combo will come out, you can focus more on strategic matters.

Here, Pyrrha practices the art of OH GOD DON'T HIT ME Fu.

The game is very fast-paced, but there’s more depth besides “Whoa holy cow man I gotta mash this button to win bam jam slam!”  Movement and positioning are key, as well as the type of attack you throw out.  You move on a 3D plane in any direction; you can move to dodge many of the game’s vertical attacks by sidestepping to a character’s left or right.  But sidestepping gets crushed by horizontal attacks.  But horizontal attacks get crushed by ducking or jumping -- or better yet, just plain blocking.  But blocking gets crushed by throws.  But throws get crushed by throw escapes or ducking.  Taking into account the fact that you have to fend off high and low attacks, unblockable attacks, and you realize the importance of staying quick on your feet.  Unless you’ve got an awesome offense going and have powers that make Criss Angel look like an amateur, there’s no way you can block everything.  The alternative is like trying to play rock-paper-scissors with the 8th Edition rule set that allows dome, landslide, book, laser, and wildebeest. 

Wildebeest beats laser.

In spite of that, you have a better chance of blocking and evading in this game than, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 3.  In Marvel, there are times where you have to block five attacks at once -- to say nothing of a little thing called “unblockable setups.”  They’re as nasty as they sound, and unlike Soulcalibur’s unblockable attacks, unblockable setups can come right the hell outta nowhere.  The question of “which way do I block?” is always prevalent of course, but it’s easier to avert with a 3D plane to traverse.  Because of that, you aren’t asking yourself “Oh crap, how am I gonna stop this guy from cracking me open like an egg?” and asking “All right, how do I open this guy up while protecting myself?”  You can button-mash, but unless you’re aware of your strategy and your opponent’s, don’t expect a lot of wins.

But what’s most important is how well you know and use your character.  Remember how I said that there are only a few genuinely new faces? And remember a few weeks back when I mentioned how important it is to have a character you resonate with?  Well it’s only been two days, but I’m feeling Viola.  With a metal claw on one hand, she does her best impression of Freddy Kruger; where things get really crazy is how she uses a magic orb to attack.  She doesn’t just bash people over the head with them -- she sends it out like a missile.  And she can use it to attack autonomously; throw it out, then call it back to you to smack enemies in the head on the return trip.  Or lay it low and trip them up -- and even if they block it, it’s a great way to get in and go for a throw.  For someone who relies heavily on defense and zoning (with a little magical flair), Viola’s a character I’d like to get to know intimately.* Also the vampire dandy is back for more stabbing.  Great success!

"Hooray!  I get to have my blood sucked!"

If there was one thing that worried me, it’s that the addition of “Critical Edges” -- flashy super moves that wouldn’t be out of place in Street Fighter -- would change the game for the worse.  I’d seen my brother lose enough times in the past to a random Ultra to know that giving a chance for players to shred 50% of their opponent’s health in one go isn’t the best idea.  Luckily, Critical Edges aren’t quite as powerful.  Useful?  Yes.  But they’re less of a comeback mechanic and more of a tool, just like any standard attack.  And you don’t have to input several million commands to combo into one (looking at you, Street Fighter); just know your character and what they can do, and you’re golden.

She's particularly good at clawing your face off.

I wouldn’t call the game perfect, though.  I’ve owned and played through three other Soulcalibur games, and there’s one issue that I find constant: it feels button-mashy.  I know, there’s plenty of depth, and if I spent hours going over every nuance I’d say otherwise; still, I can’t shake this instinct that hammering AA or BB is what stops an opponent’s offense, rather than analysis and counter-offensives.  By the same token, I feel like I’m winning because I’m virtually unpredictable -- using high and low attacks and unblockables without any reasoning behind them other than “Okay, I just used a horizontal attack, now I’ll kick ‘em in the shins.”  And if I lose, it’s because I didn’t know the other character could -- or WOULD -- do that.  It’s a far cry from the 2D fighters I’m used to, where characters have more limited move sets and therefore more defined attack patterns.

But that’s nitpicking, and like I said I’ve only played SC5 for two days.  I’ll get better (the typical arms race between me and my brother in fighting games has already started); as I do, the game will get better and more intricate.  And real fighting gamers are all very excited, cracking the code on “how to kick ass” even as I type this.  For a game that’s been a part of a near-comatose franchise to bring this much hope and hype is exemplary.  The soul still burns.

But seriously, folks…I hate that ninja girl.    

All of my hate, you octopus-headed twit.  All of my hate.

*Double entendre attack!

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